Is The Search Taking The Joy Out Of Online Shopping?

Online retail is supposed to make the shopping trip easier. But whoever expected it to take the joy out of shoe shopping?


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Anyone who has searched for a pair of loafers online might know the experience. Enter the type of shoe you want, and the site could retrieve a selection big enough to fill a warehouse. By the time you narrow the search down by size, width, color, heel height, heel type and brand, a good chunk of time has passed and you’ve either still got a hundred pairs to cull through or none that appeal to you at all.

For online merchants, this translates to a sizeable chunk of change, said Amir Konigsberg, the CEO and co-founder of Twiggle, a firm that specializes in simplifying the online product search for retailers. The search is perhaps one of the most crucial elements of the online shopper experience, and given search is often the gateway to experience, this leads to missed sales — but how much?

“Let’s say you have 2 million new visitors to your site each year,” Konigsberg wrote in an email. “About 30% of visitors to retail sites will use the search box. If 50% of these visitors bounce because of bad search (the number is actually much higher; studies cite bounce rates as high as 80% due to bad search), you’re losing 300,000 visitors.”

If the average order value is $150, and the average conversion rate is 2%, then a retailer would lose close to $1 million, he said. That does not include money spent to attract shoppers to the site in the first place and the investment needed to bring them back, he added. “Whatever the exact numbers,” he said, “we are talking very real money.”

Recapturing that real money can be as simple as avoiding frequent slip-ups. Konigsberg and Daniel Tunkelang, chief search evangelist at Twiggle and the individual who works with Apple, Etsy, Yelp and others, shared four of the most common mistakes, with good and bad examples.

1: Retailers focus more on result rankings than on query understanding. Investments in query understanding and rewriting often provide larger and faster returns than efforts to improve ranking, Konigsberg said.

For example, Amazon’s ranking for the query “women’s flats” is, in Tunkelang’s opinion,  “terrible” (socks and liners lead the search results along with shoes). He describes Macy’s, by comparison, as decent. “(The) ranking should take as a given that relevant results are shown above irrelevant results — ideally irrelevant results aren’t there in the first place,” he said. The search should promote products that are more popular, of higher quality, on sale, and so on.

2: Underinvesting in autocomplete. Autocomplete (finishing a term the shopper has begun typing) isn’t just a way to reduce the search effort; it also guides shoppers toward good queries, Konigsberg said. This in turn helps to ensure a successful — and profitable — search experience.  

Among the best examples of autocomplete is the Google web search, which delivers a manageable number of results (six or less). Further, the suggested terms are “unambiguous queries that perform well,” Tunkelang said. On the other end of the spectrum is, which does not use autocomplete at all. “It’s a very jarring experience.”

3: Neglecting the overall search experience.Konigsberg thinks it’s dangerous for retailers to assume they know what is and isn’t important for an online shopper. Each shopper differs, day to day, under the best of circumstances. Toss in environmental stimulations, time constraints, and whatever might have popped up on her calendar, and she’ll appear to be a completely different person in the evening than she was in the morning.

“Treat each decision about your search experience as a testable hypothesis,” Konigsberg suggested. Chances are, the merchant will not know which decisions matter until it tests them independently.

4: Changing too many things at once. “Almost all innovation happens one step at a time, through a series of controlled experiments,” Konigsberg said. Retailers would benefit from reining in the temptation to make complete redesigns when their search results do not deliver the immediate desired outcomes. Instead, they should isolate problems, such as why shoppers leave the site after three attempts to find a pair of shoes, and tweak those areas. In short, “dream big, execute incrementally,” he said.

To further emphasize the importance of incremental change, Tunkelang referred to a presentation by Pinterest engineer Andrea Burbank. She explained that when big changes succeed, the organization doesn’t know which parts were good and which parts were bad. In essence, the organization is vulnerable to repeating small, but consequential, mistakes.

But repeat we must. Achieving better footing in online search technology is an ongoing process, and new missteps will likely replace old ones. But if retailers stick to the basic elements, they should be able to keep ahead of key challenges.

And in the process, they should realize the “very real money” a few thousand happy shoe-shopping trips can yield.